Jailed transport official faces bribery charges in graft case

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Vietnamese investigators last week charged a former transportation official with accepting US$262,000 in bribes from a Tokyo-based company seeking contracts in a major Ho Chi Minh City roadway project.

From October 2000 to November 2008, Huynh Ngoc Si served as head of the East-West Highway Project in HCMC as well as vice director of the city's Department of Transport.

In March of this year, Si was convicted of "abuse of power" and sentenced to six years in prison. The court found that Si had illegally leased office space to the Tokyo-based Pacific Consultants International (PCI) firm from August 2001 to November 2002. The court estimated that Si had pocketed VND1.2 billion (currently $62,959) from the agreement.

On August 12, the investigators of the Ministry of Public Security charged Si with accepting bribes from PCI in 2003 to help the company win contracts inside Vietnam.

Si has denied the allegations, according to investigators.

The accusations against Si were first made on November 11, 2008 as PCI leaders stood trial in Tokyo for violations of the Unfair Competition Prevention Law, which prohibits the bribing of foreign government officials.

Japan later prosecuted the officials for offering $820,000 in bribes.

The scandal led Tokyo to temporarily suspend official development assistance (ODA) loans to Vietnam in December of the same year. They resumed the loans three months later.

The Vietnamese investigation was launched in December 2008 after four former PCI executives claimed, in an open Japanese court, that they gave Si $2.43 million in bribes to secure contracts.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs forwarded 3,050 pages of testimony given in the Tokyo District Court to Vietnamese authorities. The handoff was accomplished through diplomatic channels as the two countries have not yet reached an agreement on bilateral judicial assistance. Testimony offered in the transcripts alleged that officials at PCI had been determined to bribe Vietnamese officials to win contracts.

After reviewing the testimony, Vietnamese investigators alleged that Sakashita Haruo, a PCI board member, conspired with Sakano Tsuneo, head of PCI's office in Vietnam, to use bribery to secure contracts inside the country. The two officials asked Nguyen Thanh Hoang, general director of Norfolk Hotel, where they often rented rooms, to arrange a meeting with Si.

Hoang and Si often golfed together.

At their meeting in February 2001, Si declined to respond to the shady offer in Hoang's presence, according to the Vietnamese allegations. Following the rendezvous, Si called the PCI officials for another meeting at a karaoke lounge where they allegedly negotiated a deal. Si asked for 20 percent of the contract and after several subsequent negotiations, the deal was lowered to 10 percent.

PCI won the $9-million contract in June 2001.

Investigators here have alleged that PCI paid Si a total of $900,000 on separate occasions"”citing information discovered in the Japanese trial.

Si was also accused of receiving $1.7 million from PCI officials in exchange for his efforts to secure an inspection consultant position on the East West Highway project.

The central government had initially indicated that the Highway's project management unit (PMU) would put the sizeable contract out to bid. However, on March 18 in 2002, Si formally requested that the HCMC administration seek government approval in awarding PCI the lucrative consultant position.

Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security has claimed that it sought bribery charges against Si in connection with a payment of $262,000 because they had the evidence in hand. Investigators here say they continue to cooperate with the Japanese authorities in exploring further allegations against Si. The disgraced PCI executives claimed to have bribed Si on six additional occasions.

If true, Vietnamese authorities say, the claims could spark further charges.

THE CASE FILE

On June 25, 2008, Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported that authorities were investigating Tokyo-based Pacific Consultants International (PCI) following allegations that the firm had bribed Southeast Asian officials to secure contracts for official development assistance (ODA) funded projects. The allegations included assertions that the authorities had paid $200,000 to a Vietnamese official.

Three days later, Yomiuri reported that the PCI executives had identified the recipient of the bribes, saying that the person was responsible for Ho Chi Minh City's East-West Highway Project.

In early July 2008, the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee asked the project management unit (PMU) of the East-West Highway Project to report on the charges. The unit denied any wrongdoings.

On August 25, 2008 four PCI executives were prosecuted for offering bribes of $820,000 to PMU head, Huynh Ngoc Si, in 2003 and 2006.

On November 12, 2008 the Yomiuri newspaper reported that four former PCI executives former president Masayoshi Taga, former managing director Kunio Takasu, former board member Sakashita Haruo and former Hanoi office chief Sakano Tsuneo had pled guilty to bribery charges during a trial in a Tokyo District Court.

On November 19, 2008 Si was suspended by the HCMC government pending further investigation.

On December 8, 2008 the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security announced a criminal investigation into the allegations.

On January 29, 2009 a Tokyo district court sentenced three PCI officials including Sakashita Haruo, Takasu Kunio, and Sakano Tsuneo to two years, 20 months and 18 months in prison, respectively. All were given three-year suspended sentences.

On February 9, 2009, Si and his deputy Le Qua were arrested on charges of abuse of power.

On September 25, 2009, the HCMC People's Court sentenced Si and Qua to three and two years in jail respectively.

In January 2010, the Ministry of Public Security announced it would launch an official investigation focusing on the graft charges against Si.

In March 2010, HCMC Supreme People's Court doubled jail terms against Si and increased the sentence against Qua to five years after prosecutors appealed for a more stringent punishment.

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